Poem #18: Frederick Douglass by Joseph Seamon Cotter, Sr.

Estimated Reading Time:  3.5 minutes
Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.

TitleFrederick Douglass

Joseph Seamon Cotter, Sr.

Source:  African-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927. Dover Thrift Editions. Ed. Joan R. Sherman. 1997. ISBN:  978-0-486-29604-3.

Link: You can find this poem on this website.


O eloquent and caustic sage!
Thy long and rugged pilgrimage
      To glory's shrine has ended;
And thou hast passed the inner door,
And proved thy fitness o'er and o'er,
      And to the dome ascended.

In speaking of thy noble life
One needs must think upon the strife
      That long and sternly faced it;
But since those times have flitted by,
Just let the useless relic die
      With passions that embraced it.

There is no evil known to man
But what, if wise enough, he can
      Grow stronger in the bearing;
And so the ills we often scorn
May be of heavenly wisdom born
      To aid our onward faring.

Howe'er this be, just fame has set
Her jewels in thy coronet
      So firmly that the ages
To come will ever honor thee
And place thy name in company
      With patriots and sages.

Now thou art gone, the little men
Of fluent tongue and trashy pen
      Will strive to imitate thee;
And when they find they haven't sense
Enough to make a fair pretense,
      They'll turn and underrate thee.


As I've delved into this project and began looking at poems and in particular, poems by Black people and other People of Color, I'm fascinated by how many poems are declarations and memorials of other people. I mean I knew this is something that existed but I never understood how common it was (and that's largely because I am lacking when it comes to knowing about poetry--hence this project!).  And as I've been looking, this is not the first nor the last dedication to Frederick Douglass that I have come across, which shouldn't be a surprise, at least, to me.  

I appreciate Cotter's train of thought here as he declares Douglass has reached Heaven (stanza 1), how Douglass succeed despite the struggle, how Douglass's wisdom stemmed from this struggle, how he should be remembered as a hero, and how few people can actually be the kind of person he was.  I wondered about the use of the word "relic" in the second stanza if it referred to slavery--I think that makes sense in terms of slavery as an institution being past and the hate and bigotry that caused it as the "passions".  

But it's the final stanza that makes me raise an eyebrow.  Or at least encourages me to wonder if by 1898 (when the poem was published), just a few years after Douglass's death (1895), there were voices critiquing, condemning, or disregarding Douglass. This is certainly a common thing that we see happen after the death of a revolutionary character such as Douglass. My guess is that is likely to what Cotter is referring to though I haven't substantively looked. 

Those are my thoughts.  How do you interpret the poem?

About the reflections
This poem is part of a 365 day challenge project that focuses on a poem a day.  Similar projects have included short shorties and photo reflections. Part of the intention of this year's project is to develop a better appreciation and means of reflecting on poetry, something that has never been a strong suit for me.  These reflections therefore do not represent a definitive assessment of the work by me. They are merely an opportunity for me to have a public conversation about what they mean in order to help myself better understand them and mayhaps have a conversation with readers for further insight.  

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